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Oh Hell is a trick-taking card game in which the object is to take exactly the number of tricks bid, unlike contract bridge and spades: taking more tricks than bid is a loss. Its first appearance dates to the early 1930s and it is sometimes credited to the McCandless family.
The game of Oh Hell explores the idea of taking an exact number of tricks specified by a bid before the hand. It differs from other trick-taking games in that players play a fixed number of hands. The game uses trump, often decided by a cut of the deck after the hand's cards have been distributed.
Like many popular social card games, Oh Hell has many local variants, in both rules and names.
President Bill Clinton and Steven Spielberg are high profile Oh Hell players.
There are many variations to this game; a common set of regulations is given here.
Oh Hell can be played with almost any number of players (3+) although 4-7 is considered optimal. The game is played using a standard 52-card deck, with ace (A) being the highest rank, two (2) the lowest. With six or more players, the game can be played with two decks combined or with a 63-card deck from six-player 500.
A game consists of a fixed number of hands, and each hand consists of dealing a certain number of cards to each player, depending on the variation and the number of players. During a hand, each player bids for a number of tricks, then attempts to take exactly that many tricks during the hand.
The dealer (initially determined by cutting cards) deals out the cards one by one, starting with the player to his left, in a clockwise direction, until the required number of cards has been dealt. After the dealing is complete, the next card is turned face up, and the suit of this card determines the trump suit for the deal, which is why only up to 12 cards are dealt in a four-player match. (If there are no unused cards, the largest hand is played without a trump suit. Alternatively, the maximal round trump suit can be determined in a variety of ways: for instance, by revealing the dealer's last card as in whist, by cutting the pack before dealing or the dealer can decide the trump before seeing his own cards.)
Each player now bids for the number of tricks he believes he can win. The player to the left of the dealer bids first. Bidding is unrestricted except for the screw the dealer rule: the number of tricks bid cannot equal the number available. That is, every deal must in total be either overbid or underbid. For example, if five cards are dealt, and the first three bids are two, zero and one, then the dealer may not bid two. However, if five cards are dealt, and the first three bids are three, one and two, then the dealer is free to make any bid. The "Screw the Dealer" rule is not used in the version played in West Virginia, South Carolina, Rural Maryland, and Pennsylvania with the dealer being free to make any bid. In an alternative style of bidding, all players simultaneously hold out fingers for the number of tricks they want to bid (similar in style to a rock-paper-scissors shoot). The players bids are recorded on the score sheet next to players score.
When every player has made a bid, the player to the left of the dealer makes the opening lead. Play then proceeds as usual in a trick-taking game, with each player in turn playing one card. Players must follow suit, unless they have no cards of the led suit, in which case they may play any card. The highest card of the led suit wins the trick unless ruffed, when the highest trump card wins.
In multi-deck games, the first of identical cards to be played (say two queens of clubs) wins the trick. In a more complicated variant, identical cards cancel each other, leading to the possibility (if the number of players is even) of an entire trick being canceled out.
The player who wins the trick leads to the next trick.
Number of hands per game
- In the Oh Hell variation (a.k.a. the You Bid variation), the first hand is played with one card dealt to each player. On each succeeding deal one more card is dealt out to each player, until there aren't enough cards for another round. After this, the number of cards per player decreases by one every round. The game is complete when the last round (with one card per player) has been played. For example, a four-player match of Oh Hell consists of twenty-three deals, from hand size 1 up to 12 (forty-eight cards dealt and one turned face up for trump; 13 cards cannot be dealt, as there would be no card remaining to declare trump) and back down to 1. Three-player and double-deck variants go up to a maximum hand size of 15 cards. In one common variant, exactly thirteen hands are played - the final hand, in which each player is dealt 13 cards, is played without a trump suit (or by cutting the deck to determine trump). One variation is to make the maximum number of rounds on the way up no greater than 7, 8 or 9 rounds (thus, even with four players, the players could opt to have the pattern of cards be 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1, as playing 12 or 13 rounds up and then down again might be too lengthy for some). A sub-variation for a small number of players (three or four) uses a step in the jump, such as three players opting for the pattern to be 1-3-5-7-9-11-13-15-13-11-9-7-5-3-1. Another variation consists of the pattern 12-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12, though this version takes longer to play: in a 4-player game, starting from "1" deals a total of 144 tricks, while starting from "12" yields 155 tricks. This also assumes using the entire 52-card deck, not an abbreviated game.
- In the Devil's Bridge variation, for the 1-card hand each player holds their own card on their forehead and looks at the other players' cards, rather than their own, to bid.
- In the Get Fred variation, the game starts with a hand size that is the largest possible number of cards (but no greater than 9), reducing down to one card. The following hand has one card, then progressively returns to the maximum number of cards (again with a maximum of 9). The pattern for the number of cards in a four player game is 9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9. In yet another variation, every person must deal a 1 hand, as the dealer has an even higher likelihood of not being able to bid what they like and therefore being off in a 1 hand.
- The Diminishing Bridge variation begins with the maximum hand and counts down, like the latter half of a standard game.
- The Andy Sutherland variation begins with the maximum hand based on the number of players in the game and a standard 52-card deck. The game counts down to a hand of 1 and then counts back to the maximum hand. After each hand is completed, the deck is cycled clockwise as the game is played to rotate the dealer. This cycle continues until time has expired. Typically, 60 minutes is a sufficient duration. For each hand, after the cards have been dealt, the dealer reveals the next card to determine trump. All players bid their hands, starting left of the dealer and moving in a clockwise fashion, based on trump. In this version, the number of bids cannot equal the hand count of the game. For example, during the fourth hand in which each player is dealt four cards, the sum of all players' bids cannot equal four. To prevent the dealer from being disadvantaged, the dealer has the option of picking up the trump card and discarding a card of their choice. If a player makes their bid, the player gets 10 points plus their bid. A player making their bid of 2 would get 12 points. A player making their bid of 0 would get 10 points. If a player loses the hand, the lose the amount they bid. A player missing a 2 bid would lose 2 points. A player missing a 0 bid would not lose any points.
In this variant, all bids must add up exactly to the number of cards dealt for that round. Players must then "make it work" to move on to the next round. If anyone takes more or less than their bid, the deal moves to the left and the round is re-dealt. With four players, a second deck may be used to specify the round to be played - the value of the upcard determines the number of cards dealt and the suit determines the trump suit for the round.
This variant is played for money. Prior to dealing the first hand, players agree on the amount of money the “losers” will have to pay to the winner. The last place finisher pays the most and the second-place finisher pays the least. The sliding scale in the Prospect version keeps all the players invested in the outcome of every hand, since their finishing rank corresponds to how much money they will owe the winner.
The WPOHL (World Prospect Oh Hell League) Championship is usually held in December in Rehoboth Beach Delaware using “Prospect” rules (e.g. 5 players make up a full table, blind bidding and drinking are allowed, smoking is not). The deal begins with 10 cards, plays down to 1, then back up to 10 for a total of 19 hands per round. Depending on the size of the field, the five or ten lowest scoring players in the room are eliminated each round until there is a five-person "final table." The entry fee is typically under $50.00 (plus $10.00 to join the WPOHL, if not a member).
On December 15, 2013, Shawn O’Brien won the 2013 WPOHL Championship, earning $45.00 in prize money and temporary ownership of the Peterson Cup. The 46-year-old Pennsylvania native is the first official world champion in WPOHL history. The championship consisted of a series three games played in Montrose, Pennsylvania. The 2014 Championship is scheduled to take place December 13-14 in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
O'Brien easily defended his title on December 20, 2014 with commanding tournament play that earned him the nickname “Shawnicus Maximus” and laid the groundwork for a possible dynasty. The Pennsylvanian led the championship from wire to wire and clinched the Peterson Cup by winning the first two of three final rounds of play. With only one blind bid over the course of the 57 hand final series, Shawn made his bid an astounding 82% of the time.
In the early 1990s, the International Oh-Hell League’s annual Championship Tournament of All Creation was held each March in the Riverton, PA Fire Hall. Little current information is available about the tournament. Players vied for the league trophy, a 2-inch bronze reproduction of the Belgian landmark sculpture Manneken Pis - a naked, urinating urchin - which resided permanently in the home of tournament founder, Jack Mathews, regardless of who won the tournament. Thus, to "win" the trophy was not to possess it. Additional idiosyncratic tournament rules included the use of alcohol being off limits, but the use of tobacco being encouraged. A full table consisted of four players. Play began with a one card hand, went up to 13, then back down to one for a total of 25 hands. In each hand, except the 13th, when the entire deck was dealt, the first undealt card was turned over to establish the trump suit. The tournament entry fee was $5.00.
The Annual Cartier 'Oh Hell!' Tournament began in 1995. The tournament formula was created by Tessa Kennedy and Tomasz Starzewski. Cartier Ltd. sponsors the tournament with all money raised going to charity.
- Players choose trump (not a random card), and 4 players constitute a full table.
- Each game is 23 hands from 13 cards each down to 2 cards each and from 3 cards back up to 13. Players alternate as Dealer in a clockwise direction. One player is nominated as scorer.
- The person with the highest number of bids names the trump suit which can be any of the four suits or "no trumps."
Tournament Organization: Two decks of cards are assigned to each table. As one deck is dealt, the other is shuffled in preparation for the following hand. The person to shuffle the cards is always the player sitting opposite the dealer in that hand. Players pick a random card from the deck to select the Dealer for the first hand (highest card is first Dealer).
The tournament is played with 32 people. The first round has all 32 people playing on 8 tables of 4 players each. The winner and first runner up from each table go on to play in the second round. The second round is therefore played with 16 people on 4 tables of 4 players. First round winners and runners-up are split up so they do not play each other again in the second round. The single winner from each table then goes on to the final round the final table of 4 players. The winner is the tournament champion.
There are several alternative methods of scoring:
- Basic scoring: Each player scores 1 point for each trick he/she takes. A player that wins the exact number of tricks bid receives an additional 10 points for making the contract. Players who miss their contract are thus encouraged to take as many tricks as possible, which results in other players also missing their contracts.
- Variant basic scoring: As with Basic Scoring each player scores 1 point for each trick he/she takes however a player that wins the exact number of tricks bid receives an additional 5 points for making the contract. This makes the game closer when there are a large number of players and encourages players to bid more than 0 tricks as possible.
- Exact scoring: A player who makes the exact number of tricks bid scores 10 plus the amount bid. Players who overbid or underbid score nothing.
- Exact scoring with penalty: A player who makes the exact number of tricks bid scores 10 plus the amount bid. Players who underbid are deducted points in the amount of the bid. (Missing a 3 bid scores -3; missing a zero bid scores 0.) Used in the Hassenpfeffer variant.
- 10 times exact scoring: Similar to Exact scoring, with or without penalty, but each trick bid is worth 10 points; a player who bids 4 is awarded 40 points for exactly making the bid and scores either zero or -40 if he does not make the contract. Variants of this also put a 5-point value on bidding ZERO - negative 5 if you take a trick, positive 5 if you don't take any tricks.
- Double Whammy: Played like basic scoring, except that a successful 1-bid earns 15 points, a successful 2-bid earns 22, and further successive bids are awarded in multiples of 11 (33 for 3, 44 for 4, etc.). This variation may be played in the second half of an otherwise regular game, if desired.
- Penalty under, Zero Over: A variation of exact scoring that combines variants with and without penalties; overtricking scores zero points while undertricking results in a penalty according to the specific exact scoring variant used. This promotes "sacrificing" one's own contract by severely overtricking in order to "set" someone else.
- Exact scoring with penalty where points are multiples of 5: A player who makes the exact number of tricks bid scores 10 plus the amount bid multiplied by 5. Players who underbid are deducted points in the amount of the bid multiplied by 5. (Missing a 3 bid scores (3*(-5))=-15; missing a zero bid scores -10. Making a 5 scores (10+5*5)=35) Used in the Cypriot variant. This variant encourages high bidding due to the amount of possible points to gain.
- Exact scoring with set penalty: A player who makes the exact number of tricks bid scores 10 plus the amount bid. Players who underbid score only one point for each trick. Players who overbid have "gone set" and lose 10 points, regardless of the number of tricks taken. For example, if a player who has bid four takes exactly 4 tricks, he scores 14. If he takes 5 tricks, he scores 5. If he takes 3 tricks, he scores -10.
- Exact scoring with progressive penalty: A player who makes the exact number of tricks bid scores 10 plus the amount bid. Players who underbid or overbid lose the amount of the bid, plus ten points for each trick under or overbid. For example, a player bids 4: If he takes exactly 4 tricks, he scores 14. If he takes 3 or 5 tricks, he scores -14. If he takes 2 or 6 tricks, he scores -24. This variation makes it easier to "pile on the leader" and eliminate even a large lead in just one hand.
- Reduced 0 bid: Similar to basic (or exact) scoring, with the modification that making a zero contract scores only five points. (Zero bids are often the easiest to make.)
- Adjusted 0 bid: Similar to basic scoring, with the change that a zero bid is worth five plus the number of cards dealt out to a player. For example, in the first round, a successful zero bid is worth 6 points, while a successful one bid is worth 11 points. (Zero bids are harder to make in larger hands.)
- Progressive scoring: As in basic scoring, a player that fails to make the contract receives a number of points equal to the number of tricks he takes. However, a successful bid is worth the 10-point threshold plus the square of the bid, thereby rewarding a person bidding and making four tricks with 26 (10 plus 16) points. This has the advantage of rewarding riskier bids, and making it possible for someone to catch up from behind more easily.
- Simplified / Montreal progressive scoring: Each player receives 10 points for satisfying the contract plus twice the number of tricks taken, otherwise they receive zero points.
- Negative scoring: The scoring system is reversed, as in golf, lowest score winning. Satisfying the contract scores zero points. The first undertrick or overtrick costs one point, and each additional undertrick/overtrick costs a point more than the one before it. For instance, 3 overtricks would add 6 points (the sum of 1, 2, and 3) to a player's total. This rewards sacrifices, for it is now often beneficial to risk an overtrick (1 point) to cost a person that is already down to get an additional undertrick (which will cost many more points).
- Simplified negative scoring: Each player scores the square of the number of overtricks or undertricks taken.
- Variant negative scoring: Each player who fails to satisfy the contract scores points according to the number of total tricks in that round (e.g., in a round where there were five total tricks, every unsuccessful player scores 5).
- Spades double: In variations where the trump card is chosen randomly, some play that if a spade is turned up, the points for that round double.
- Trick scoring: Each player that scores the number of tricks bid receives that many points, with the exception of correctly bidding 0, in which case the player receives a half point. Any overbid or underbid loses the number of points their bid was off (a player bidding 3 tricks that wins only 2 would lose a point, as would a player bidding 2 and winning 3).
- Binary scoring: A player who makes the exact number of tricks bid scores 10. Players who overbid or underbid score nothing.
- Binary scoring with nil rule: A player who makes the exact number of tricks bid scores 10. If the number of tricks exceeds the number of players, players who bid nil (zero) score 20 if they take no tricks, otherwise -10.
- Binary scoring with increasing penalty: A player who makes the exact number of tricks bid scores 8. Players who overbid or underbid have their score cut in half, (rounding up).
- Scratch / Quick scoring: Players who overbid or underbid get a scratch (signified by crossing through their unsuccessful bid). The person with the least scratches wins the game. In the event of a tie, the tied player who bid the most wins the game (This is done by adding up each tied-player's successful bids.)
- Adjusted exact scoring: A player who makes the exact number of tricks receives that number of points plus the number of cards dealt out to a player.
- Get Fred / Oy Vey scoring: A player who makes the exact number of tricks receives that number of points plus 10. Players who miss the contract lose the difference between the bid and the number of tricks taken. Thus, a player who bids three and takes either two or four tricks will lose one point. (In the Oy Vey variant, if many players are playing, often a successful bid is worth the 10-point threshold plus the square of the bid. This lifts the scores in the game, as in general the more players participate, the lower the scores are.)
- Novacastrian scoring: A player who makes the exact number of tricks receives that number of points. Players who overbid lose the number of points they bid for that hand. Players who underbid lose the number of tricks they've taken that hand. A player's score will change by at least the number bid and by at least the number of tricks they take.
- Gentleman scoring: A player who makes the contract scores the number of tricks bid times 10, unless he/she bid zero, in which case the player scores 5. If a player fails to make the contract and takes overtrick(s), he/she scores the number of tricks taken. If a player has overbid, he/she scores the difference between tricks bid and tricks taken times -10.
- Variable bonus scoring: Each player scores one point for each trick taken, plus a variable bonus if the player takes the exact number of tricks bid. The bonus numerically decreases as the number of cards increases (and vice versa), meaning that when there are more tricks available in a round (and thereby a greater chance of successfully achieving the bid), there are less bonus points on offer. For example, in a game where the dealing pattern is 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1, the bonus points available in each successive round would be 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
- Penalty Scoring: A player who makes the contract scores 10 points + 5 points for each trick made. If the bidder makes more or fewer tricks than were bid, he/she loses 10 points for the first over or under trick + 15 points for each additional over or under trick.
- Bidding Blind: Blind bids are unique to the Prospect version of Oh Hell. If a player falls 20 points, or more, behind the leader at the end of a round (e.g., Player 1 has 15 points and Player 2 is the leader with 35 points) the player that is behind can enter a blind bid by bidding prior to looking at any of his cards, and prior to anyone else bidding. Bidding Blind is optional, and can be done multiple times as long as the player continues to be eligible after each round. If a player looks at his/her cards prior to bidding, bidding blind for that round is not an option. There is no limit to the number of players that can bid blind and the order of blind bidding follows the same order as regular bidding (e.g., clockwise, starting to the left of the dealer). If the player bidding blind makes his bid, the player gets a bonus of twenty points instead of ten points. If the dealer bids blind and the other players bidding forces the dealer off the blind bid, 1 (one) addition trick is added to the dealers blind bid. Blind bidding is significant in Prospect Oh Hell since Prospect, and all sanctioned WPOHL games, are played for money.
- UL Scoring (Pronounced "ool"): Players begin at one card and work their way up to the maximum number of cards possible. Whomever is trailing at the top of the game is declared the Ultimate Loser and must perform an interpretive dance to a song of the group's choosing. Very effective for rooting out prospective suitors. Practiced in the 90s in New York City.
Oh Hell is also known by a variety of names, including:
- Beredskap (Swedish: preparedness)
- Bugger Your Neighbour
- Cut-throat Bridge
- Dang Shoot (in Racine, WI)
- Diminishing Bridge
- Diminishing Whist
- Donut (in Canoe Lake, Canada)
- Estimate (in India)
- Estimation (in Egypt)
- Fodinha (in Brazil)
- Gary's Game
- German Bridge (in Hong Kong)
- Get Fred
- Hell Yeah
- Judgement (in India)
- Louie (in New Jersey)
- Juego de Daniel
- Mormon Bridge
- Nah Pearse
- Nomination Whist
- Oh Heck
- Oh Pshaw
- Oh Well
- Old Hell
- Plump (Swedish: blob)
- Pooch (in Montreal, Canada)
- Prediction Whist
- Rats (in Northwestern Ohio and Southern Michigan)
- Ri-ki-ki (in Hungary, pronunciation: Ree-Kee-Kee)
- Screw Your Neighbor
- Shit on Your Neighbor
- Stinky Fingers
- Ten Down
- Up and Down the River (also in Russia)
- Up Down
- Up the River
- Upsy Downsy
- Vanishing Whist
- Wizard (in Spain)
Boerenbridge, Boerenlullen, Chinees poepen, Chinees dekken, Chinees bridgen, Koreaanse poker, 10 op en neer, jodelen, pronostieken, Slagenvragen, Hellen, Bollen, op-en-affen.